Not long after Republicans retook the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon traveled with members of his panel to tour a defense-industry facility in his California district. Some of the lawmakers were the committee’s new type who would cut spending regardless of whether it was defense or anything else, according to Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from McKeon’s state. And things got a little tense.
“These guys were saying, ‘Oh, we don’t need these things; we just need to cut it,’ ” Sanchez said. “In my time, you would never say that in front of the chairman, especially in his district.”
McKeon, a known conciliator, did not make an issue of the comments. “He’s too nice,” Sanchez said. “I would have left them behind in the desert.”
Defense spending used to be sacred to Republicans. But the House’s influx of lawmakers raring to cut the deficit makes McKeon’s job harder. In an era of intense fiscal pressure, McKeon, who hails from the party that believed in “peace through strength,” sees it as his duty to show his colleagues why Congress needs to fund defense programs.
Now serving his 11th term in the House, McKeon, 74, laments the congressional gridlock, even at times within his party. “There are some people in the conference that kind of think they’re right themselves, no matter what, and they’re going to vote against leadership no matter what,” McKeon said, noting, for example, how Rep. John Boehner was unanimously elected House speaker by the Republican conference, but some members voted against him on the floor. “It’s hard to work with people like that.”
It’s tough to chair a 62-member committee responsible for authorizing roughly half a trillion dollars for America’s defenses. Abroad, the Iranian nuclear threat is pressing, North Korea is increasingly belligerent, Syria is enmeshed in civil war, China’s military is growing, and U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan. At home, the defense budget is falling after a decade of war, Americans oppose spending more on the military, and the nation is in a fiscal crisis.
It’s the fiscal fights that take up much of McKeon’s time. McKeon agrees with some GOP hawks who say the first wave of $487 billion in defense cuts wrought by the Budget Control Act of 2011 was too much, but he accepts it, conceding that “we lost that fight.” Now he is working with the Pentagon to manage those changes. But McKeon wants to reverse sequestration, the $500 billion in additional cuts over the coming decade, which McKeon voted for, in deference to House leadership.
Since then, the chairman voted seven times to fix sequestration and mitigate its effects on the Defense Department. McKeon introduced a proposal to pay for sequestration by reducing the size of the federal workforce through attrition. And he held seven full committee hearings examining the effects, with star witnesses including senior Pentagon and military leaders, all of the service chiefs, and prominent outside defense and economic experts.
“He’s established a very clear record about what the sequester is doing,” said former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who served on the committee during his time in the House and now cochairs Washington lobbying and communications firm Mercury Public Affairs. Many members of Congress today, Talent said, don’t see defense as a front-burner issue.
“Since the end of the Cold War, people are confused about what America’s strategic role and interests are in the world, and when you’re confused about why you need a defense you slip into the idea that it’s not important,” Talent said. “It tough to be the chair of a committee in that environment, because you’re constantly having to tell people things they don’t want to hear.”
McKeon’s style, by many accounts, is not to hammer or pressure lawmakers into doing what he wants. Instead, McKeon will try to persuade, often by organizing small dinners and inviting experts like Talent to talk to members of his committee.
“Buck believes this very strongly: There’s a price up front to being strong, but it’s less than the long-term costs of being weak,” Talent said. “We get too weak, we can’t deter conflict, and if you get conflict, one of the bad things ... is you have to spend more money.”
McKeon in some ways is an unusual champion of the defense budget. For starters, he did not serve in the military. Born and raised in California, he began his career after graduating from Brigham Young University in the family business, Howard and Phil’s Western Wear. He became the first mayor of Santa Clarita, a town north of Los Angeles, and was elected to Congress in 1992.
As an influential member and former chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, McKeon had focused most of his efforts there. But being on the Armed Services Committee was important to him, too. In the interview, McKeon pulled from his desk drawer a photo of his father in uniform, home on leave from World War II, next to himself at about age 5 with his brother. “I remember World War II,” McKeon said. “I remember my dad going, my uncles. My dad lost his best friend. Then after the war, when they came home, I remember visiting and hearing my dad talk to friends about stories from the war.”
When the opportunity came to take the top Republican slot on Armed Services in 2009, McKeon gave up his seat as the top Education Committee Republican. And with that he gained a new constituency that transcends congressional districts: the military. “By virtue of being chairman of this committee you have a natural constituency.... I feel like we have to watch out for them to make sure that they’re getting the things they need to be successful.”
In many cases, McKeon can effect change. For example, a few days after he met with the ambassador of Morocco, a United Nations vote supporting Algeria took place that drew objections from Morocco, which cancelled a planned military training exercise. So McKeon called Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and, after some diplomatic juggling, the U.N. position was pulled back and the situation resolved. Now McKeon plans to stop in Morocco as part of a trip to Israel. But McKeon knows his influence is limited.
“I’m not the commander in chief,” McKeon said. “All I can do is look at an issue and try to come up with the best solution I can think of.”
Sometimes the White House does not play ball. McKeon said he has had good relationships with the secretaries of Defense but essentially no relationship with President Obama. When he was ranking member on the Education committee and Obama was the new president, McKeon visited the White House for a small lunch with the committee chairman, Obama, and his then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. “I’ve never had that with Defense with the president,” McKeon said. In the last two years, McKeon says he wrote Obama at least five letters offering to work with him on the issue of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay but received no response.
Life can be similarly tough in Congress, where House leadership is firmly in control of the fiscal agenda. For example, the committees were cut out of the heated budget negotiations between Boehner and the president earlier this year. But there may yet be opportunities for McKeon to play a larger role.
“The Congress is becoming more concerned about what the Chinese are doing, and the North Korean provocations are focusing people more on that,” Talent said. “That may open up an opportunity for Buck to implement his agenda, and he’ll be ready to do that because he’s kept the committee ready.”
One thing McKeon is not ready to do: announce his retirement. But there is speculation he may step down. Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is the logical successor, with potential challenges from Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee chairman, or Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who chairs the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee. While McKeon said he will retire someday—“I don’t plan on being here until I die,” he quipped—he doesn’t know when.
“That’s a decision I’ll have to make, and I’ll make that with my wife and my family,” he said. “I don’t even have to think about it now.”
This article appears in the June 14, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as The Chairman’s Job Is Never Easy.